Into the Jungle – Land use in the scrub (2)

Although the dryland rice covered huge areas, and occasionally we would see sorghum or maize in fields, more intensive cultivation would happen in the valley bottoms.  In these lowlands all kinds of crops, including rice, would be grown, in paddies, in carefully raised mounds of earth.  Irrigation systems would allow careful application of water from nearby rivers and lakes to the fields, neither depriving nor swamping the growing crops.  Some of these had been created in existing bas fond, but others seemed to have been grubbed up out of the gallery forest – depriving a much richer biodiversity of its rightful place.

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The national park has a much richer vegetation

Another activity was prevalent deep in these gallery forest close to rivers.  This part of west Africa is well renowned for its mineral resources.  One mountain on the border of Guinea and Liberia has up to 40% pure iron in its rocks but gold is also present in decent quantities.  Many artisanal miners dig up the silty basins of rivers looking for the finest dust fragments of the metal.  Locally it produces a mess of whitish fine dust that coats every leaf and soil crumb, and makes the streams milky for miles downstream.  But these hand dug pits are tiny compared to the destruction by logging, large scale mining and shifting agriculture.

As we passed back through Kortor, with all our friends of the morning waving us as we passed through, I realised just how richer the forest was close to the park.  You could feel the distinct coolness, the moisture both trapped in the air and on the ground, and the innumerable species of plants, and no doubt animals, that were thriving in this environment.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Into the Jungle – First explorations

Although it was dark I could see the ferry terminal was tucked underneath a long concrete bridge and Haba drove across this into the city proper and wound his way steeply uphill for about twenty minutes.  It was not that far a distance but almost every inch of journey was on heavily potholed roads.  These roads were full of taxis and belching buses, and although it was getting past 8pm, most of the roadside stalls were doing brisk business, including the bars.  We eventually did leave the hubbub behind as we climbed through a quieter residential area.  At long last, Haba did a hairpin turn and drove fiercely up a concrete ramp into the forecourt of the Hill Valley Hotel.  Hill Valley – what a name.

Clinging to the side of a steep hill, it was built on about four levels, and each building had three or four storeys. It had a heavily wood panelled reception and it took a while for my formalities to be sorted out, I then went up to the highest part of the hotel and was shown a rather grimy room, again with dark decoration and deeply varnished wooden furniture.  It was getting late but I felt I needed some food so headed downstairs;  a very tall Englishman greeted me as  I walked in to the restaurant; this was Hugo who was to be working with me on the project.

I was still a little sketchy about what was happening.  The project was funded by USAID and was run by the US Forest Service (USFS) International Program.  But it contained a lot of formal partners, including my own contractors, Thomson Reuters, and for this next week or so, some external organisations who were contributing to the project.

What was the project?  It was called STEWARD or Sustainable and Thriving Environments for West African Development.  The basic premise was that the Guinea Forest was an important biome for biodiversity and potential climate chance mitigation, but also an important resource for local communities and contained some rich mineral veins and logging potential.  The project was to try and find ways to preserve what was left of pristine forest in two main areas, conserve the rest and improve the cultivation and natural resource management by those communities so that the pressure on removing the rest was halted and the forests could be safeguarded as a sustainable resource for generations to come.

This was a tall order; the pressures on the system were great as logging the great gallery trees was eating away fast at the remaining good “jungle”.  However, the whole ecosystem was not really jungle.  Particularly in the northern zone, there was a proper dry season, and away from the rivers the huge tropical trees could not survive.  The predominant natural landscape was a thick woody bushland, petering out over areas where soils were very bad, or where localised seasonal inundations would be too stressful for trees, leaving a grassy lowland (or in the French a bas fond).  In this complex of natural vegetation types, rapidly expanding populations using mainly shifting agriculture had degraded the vegetation.  Fires regularly burned in the dry season too, some of which used to clear scrub but could get out of control.

STEWARD had built up a series of practices with local communities to conserve the land, intensify agriculture through better practices of manuring and compost, replant trees in community forests, arrange people to mobilise to control fire breaking out.  And because these areas were transboundary – that is the northern area straddled the Guinea/Sierra Leone border, and the southern one crossed between Liberia and Guinea, issues of harmonizing laws in all these countries was vital.  There was no point in recommending something on one side of a border only for the other side to continue desecrating the environment.

The Adopted Dog – Into Mesopotamia

Our second day of field trips was to look at two more of our possible case studies.  The first was probably the most important one from the point of view of the EU Funding.  To the north east of Kingstown is a large catchment called the Mesopotamia valley, and it is stacked full of banana trees – the largest plantations in the whole country.  As I’ve explained the industry is declining and some of the hillsides are being abandoned.  While the natural vegetation is encroaching on some fields, the steeper slopes are becoming more susceptible to erosion and the consequences for flooding in the settled valley bottoms and dumping soil out over the coral reefs on the Atlantic Coast.

We gathered at the ministry to take a vehicle out of town towards the airport.  Just beyond the turn off to the terminal, right at the end of the runway, we veered off the Windward Highway and started heading up through the leafier suburbs behind Arnos Vale and over the ridge into Mesopotamia itself.  The road hairpins down the side of the valley, but not before you have several look out points to see the expanse of the plantations.  It was rainy season and the central mountains of St Vincent looked threatening in amongst the iron grey skies.  Houses were generally nestled at the base of the valleys, or along the many ridges that reach down from the volcanic peaks.  The steep slopes in between were full of banana plants, many of them with their fruit covered in blue plastic bags to protect them from insects and fungus.

The evidence of banana industry was everywhere – not just in the fields.  Along the roadside we would see pallets ready for stacking the produce; in the heart of the valley was a large metal storehouse that was marked as a processing plant.  A whole posse of trucks sat in yards here and there waiting for the time they were to transport the cargo down to Kingstown wharf.  It all looked very organised, productive and profitable.  But then we saw the abandoned plantations and the derelict machines and you realised this was the last vestiges of a declining industry.

The options for land use change in St Vincent were limited.  Beyond the abandonment of fields and recapture by the natural vegetation, they could be taken on for other sorts of agriculture.  This was somewhat limited by the steepness of the slopes on which the bananas had been grown.  One potential application of the National GIS was to study the slopes, the soils and the water sources to look at land capability for other crops; be they ground annual crops like rice or wheat, or plantations such as rubber, arrowroot.  The latter was a traditional crop in the north of St Vincent that had gone into decline until it was seen as a very useful whitener or computer paper.  The other alternative was to subdivide the plantations and allow further building development.  And that was about all.  The steep slopes of Mesopotamia were a large problem for government right now.

We followed the main river out of the valley and down to the Windward coast.  Here the land was flatter and often used for coconut plantation as well as other farming – the options of non-banana land were much wider than that in the valley.  But this area was earmarked for a much bigger project.  Ever since I had started coming to St Vincent there had been talk of a new airport.  Still no turf had been cut, no sod lifted.  But this windward region was in such limbo that it too looked slightly decayed and worn out.  With the prospect of hectares of land being bought up for runway, taxiways, tarmac, terminal buildings and car parks, nobody was investing in their private dwellings – just waiting for the government to pay them off so they could move on.